An explanation of what this specification means and how relevant it is for different photographers.
When you’re shopping for a new camera you may come across a specification telling you the number of shutter actuations (or cycles) the camera’s shutter mechanism has been tested for. We say ‘may’ because this information is rarely provided for entry-level cameras and only occasionally for mid-level models.
However, it is almost always included in the marketing brochures (although not necessarily in the technical specifications list) for professional and high-end enthusiasts’ cameras, where the buyer might expect greater durability for the price they paid. Cameras at this level are also more likely to be traded-in and/or sold secondhand.
The ‘tested for x cycles’ claim has been in use since the days of film SLRs and the leading manufacturers tend to use the same wording. In this context, a ‘cycle’ extends from the time the shutter curtain opens until it returns to the closed position.
Unfortunately, many people misinterpret the wording, expecting it to represent the mean time before failure or the minimum time before a shutter will show signs of failure. In fact, neither is true; it simply means someone has run a test on at least one sample of the particular camera and rounded up the results to the nearest hundred-thousand. That figure becomes the marketing message.
Why shutter cycles matter
Although modern cameras have very few mechanical components that can ‘wear out’, the shutter mechanism is arguably the most critical if the camera is to continue working. In a DSLR, another key moving part is the reflex mirror. This swings up when you press the shutter button and is engaged when the shutter mechanism is triggered or the Live View mode is selected. In a mirrorless camera, there’s only the shutter mechanism.
Shutters are complex devices that are required to work under tough conditions. The curtains of a focal plane shutter (the most common type in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras) must move with micron-level precision while covering a distance of up to 24 mm (for a ‘full frame’ sensor) in less than three milliseconds. That’s equivalent to just under 30 km/hour on average, accomplished with instantaneous start and stop points.
When you’re using fast shutter speeds with a mechanical shutter, in some high-end cameras it may have to open and close in as little as 1/8000 second. This requires ultra-fast opening and closing and it must be able to perform these actions reliably and repeatedly – and in rapid succession during continuous shooting.
Under such conditions, it is inevitable that the shutter in a camera will reach a point where it fails to work properly and the camera will become unreliable – and, eventually, unusable. When this happens, the camera will ‘die’. Photographers are then faced with deciding whether to have the shutter unit replaced or buy a new camera (which may be cheaper).
Wedding and commercial photographers who shoot, say, 2000 images per week (not difficult for busy professionals) will average a little more than 100,000 actuations in a year and might be looking at only a year or two before they encounter problems. The last thing a professional shooter wants is to have a shutter fail in the middle of an important shoot. Shutter actuation data can be valuable to these photographers, particularly if it can circumvent potential problems.
For most camera users, shutter actuation data can be seen mainly as a guideline. It’s common for shutters to last longer than their official rating and actual shutter durability will be influenced by factors like how often the camera is used and the conditions in which it is operated. Looking after your equipment will help you to obtain the best shutter performance.
There is no set limit at which a shutter is designed to stop working. Failure can happen when the shutter is relatively new, usually as a result of a manufacturing defect (in which case it should be fixed under warranty).
Most entry-level DSLR cameras should be able to withstand at least 50,000 actuations, while mid-level models should last for more than 100,000 actuation cycles. Enthusiast-level DSLRs are normally rated for 150,000 to 250,000 actuations while professional DSLRs are rated for 300,000 to 500,000 actuations. However, you might actually get more than 300,000 actuations out of a shutter rated for only 100,000.
Both Canon and Nikon release shutter ratings for their mid-level and professional cameras. Canon’s EOS 1D X Mark II has the highest rating at 500,000 cycles, with the EOS 7D II rated at 200,000 cycles, the EOS 5D II, III and IV at 150,000 cycles and the EOS 6D II, 60D, 70D, 80D and EOS 750D at 100,000 cycles. Nikon’s D4 and D5 cameras are rated at 400,000 cycles, with the D850 and D500 at 200,000 cycles, the D7500 at 150,000 cycles and the D5600 and D3500 at 100,000 cycles.
Any published ratings for mirrorless cameras will apply primarily to their mechanical shutters, since with no moving components involved, electronic shutters aren’t really prone to wear (although they are associated with other problems, outlined in the box on page ??).
The rating for the Olympus OM-D E-M1’s mechanical shutter is 150,000 cycles, while the more recent, E-M1 Mark II is rated for 200,000 cycles. The professionally-oriented OM-D E-M1X is rated for 400,000 cycles, as are Panasonic’s new S1 and S1R ‘full frame’ cameras.
Nikon claims a shutter life expectancy of 200 000 actuations for its Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras. Canon’s EOS R is also rated for 200 000 actuations, although the lower-priced EOS RP is rated for up to 100,000 cycles, according to available data. Sony is quite coy about giving official shutter count ratings, although it rates the α7R II, α7R III and α9 for 500,000 actuations.
Electronic shutter issues
Mirrorless cameras with mechanical and electronic shutters tend to leave the mechanical shutter closed when the camera is turned off. To use the electronic shutter, the mechanical shutter must be opened at the beginning of the ‘session’ and closed at its end, which represents one complete cycle. This will happen when you record movies or use the ‘silent shutter’ setting.
When the shutter remains open for long periods of time the image sensor will often become quite warm. This will increase image noise in the resulting images and, with repeated prolonged exposures to light, the sensor can develop ‘dud’ pixels.
Although the latest cameras are designed to reduce the buildup of heat, they can’t eliminate it entirely. Many cameras still become warm to the touch following a few minutes of movie recording. Prolonged use of the electronic shutter will significantly reduce the life expectancy of the sensor, compared to using the mechanical shutter most of the time and therefore only exposing the sensor to light while actually recording an image.
Finding shutter counts
Knowing the shutter count is like knowing how many miles a car has travelled. This information can be particularly useful when buying secondhand camera bodies.
There are several ways to check a camera’s shutter count; and all of them rely on either having access to the camera, access to an image created by the camera, or both. There are several websites that let you upload an image to check the shutter count based upon EXIF information in the image metadata. CameraShutterCount.com and MyShutterCount.com support both JPEG and raw files from Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Samsung cameras, but not Olympus or Panasonic.
For Olympus and Panasonic cameras, you can find out by accessing the camera’s operating system.
You can also consult the Oleg Kikin website, a crowd-sourced database of
camera shutter actuations. This database isn’t perfect (no crowd-sourced project is) – it doesn’t include cameras released in the last few years and only provides scanty coverage of a few brands. However it can be useful for finding out how long the shutter mechanism in an older camera might be expected to last, on average. Click on the sitemap link for a full list of cameras covered by this database.
A selection of shutter actuation data from cameras listed on the Oleg Kikin database. Note that the most recent models are not included since they haven’t been used for long enough to allow meaningful data to be collected.
Article by Margaret Brown (see Margaret’s photography pocket guides)